Hugo Chávez’s landslide reelection on December 3 reinforced Latin America’s status as the primary outpost of opposition to the neoliberal economic policies pushed by the West – the so-called Washington consensus (See “What Chávez’s Re-election Means,” p. 26). Perhaps just as important, Chávez’s win also energizes the global movement of South-South integration that has been picking up steam in recent years.
In his December 4 victory speech, Chávez made it clear that he intends to press his case. “Today we gave another lesson in dignity to the imperialists; it is another defeat for the empire of Mr. Danger … another defeat for the devil. We will never be a colony of the U.S. again.”
The labels “Mr. Danger” and “the devil” are Chávez’s jibing references to President George W. Bush and American dominance in general. While he deploys those epithets with a touch of humor, Chávez is deadly serious about his opposition to what he calls U.S. imperialism. His re-election gives him at least six more years to rally this opposition.
More than any other South American leader, Chávez stresses his continent’s link to Africa. Addressing the World Social Forum in Caracas last January, he said, “We [Latin Americans] carry Africa inside us. Africa is part of us. Latin, Caribbean America cannot be understood without Africa and the sacrifice of Africa and the grandeur of Africa.”
Since Chávez’s initial election in 1998, he has pushed to strengthen economic and cultural ties between the two continents. In the last two years, Venezuela has doubled its number of embassies in Africa and Chávez has personally visited several countries in recent months, firming up links long ignored or even nonexistent.
While attending the seventh African Union (AU) summit last July in the Gambia, for example, Chávez proposed an ambitious plan to deepen cooperation among the people of South America, Africa and the Caribbean.
Among his ideas were plans to develop an alternative energy system, called Petrosouth, to harness the power of oil as an instrument of social development. “It was used by the colonialists to oppress us,” Chávez told the summit crowd. “We are now going to use it to liberate our people.” He outlined similar ideas for alternative banking and communications institutions to replace exploitative western models.
Despite considerable opposition from the United States, Chávez’s strong push for South-South integration has also gained some traction among fellow Latin Americans. This movement is the latest iteration of the non-aligned movement organized at the 1955 Bandung Conference to mark a political space between the capitalist “West” and the socialist “East”(a division now referred to in terms of “North” and “South”).
Just days prior to the Venezuelan election, a gathering of leaders met from November 30 to December 1 at the first Africa-South America summit in Abuja, Nigeria, to begin plans for expanding bi-regional links. The unprecedented gathering included 12 South American nations and more than 50 African countries. During the summit, leaders from the two continents agreed that their common experiences as victims of western exploitation gave them a special incentive to challenge western hegemony. The meeting closed with a plan for action and the “Resolution of Abuja,” which established a Cooperation Forum, provisionally based in Nigeria, to meet every two years to share initiatives and maintain continuity. The second conference is scheduled for Caracas in 2009.
Chávez also has offered aid and expertise to Angola’s fossil fuel industry, sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest. The Venezuelan president’s theme of “resource nationalism” – in which producing nations are more fairly compensated for their resources – is one that goes over well on the resource-rich African continent.
But Chávez’s embrace of Africa seems to go even further than a quest for South-South integration. More than any other Latin American leader in history, he seems eager to note his personal connections as well. In Mali last July, where he promised to aid in oil prospecting and drilling, Chávez told a local crowd that his father was as black as their president Amadou Toumani Touré was. And he is elevating that personal link to the level of policy.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chávez provided relief assistance to the mostly African-American victims through CITGO, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state owned oil company. During Chávez’s visit to the UN this summer, he visited African-American and Latino neighborhoods in the South Bronx and has cultivated ties with many in the civil rights community.
The fiery Venezuelan president is charting a new course for his oil-rich nation. Preaching socialism in a neoliberal world and touting African pride in a continent debilitated by disease, war and poverty would seem to be losing propositions. But we’ve learned not to count Chávez out.